Teen Tanning: Do Only Pretty Girls Get Skin Cancer?

Children's health and well-being made it to the front page of The New York Times! Parents rejoice! Warning: That Tan Could Be Dangerous. Above the fold, front and center in Sunday's paper. Okay, so it involves teen and young adult health, but still, I'll take it. Time to celebrate. Break out the locally-sourced organic apple cider! Such an auspicious occasion I won't linger on the brain dead headline - gee, who knew tanning could be dangerous? In fact it's been so long since parents got this kind of break I can't remember the last time. We can thank this brush with serious attention to the indoor tanning industry and concerned public health authorities. The latter want you to know tanning beds aren't all fun and frying:
For decades, researchers saw indoor tanning as little more than a curiosity. But a review of the scientific evidence published last year estimated that tanning beds account for as many as 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the United States each year, including 6,000 cases of melanoma, the deadliest form. And clinicians are concerned about the incidence rate of melanoma in women under 40, which has risen by a third since the early 1990s, according to data from the National Cancer Institute. (Death rates have not gone up, however, a testament to earlier detection and better treatment.)

Good to know. Tanning beds are linked to skin cancer, lots of skin cancer. Do tanning beds account for a large number of new cases? How many new cases of skin cancer are there each year? How many new cases of melanoma?

The article didn't put these alarming statistics into perspective so I did a quick search. The National Cancer Institutes reports about 68,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with melanoma each year and another 48,000 with an early form of the disease. Around 2 million people are treated for other skin cancers each year (note that includes previously diagnosed patients too). I assume the stats in the article reflect newly diagnosed cases thus it appears tanning beds are linked to less than 10% of new melanoma cases.

How many teens are diagnosed with melanoma each year? How many of those 6,000 new melanoma cases are in teenagers? I don't know.

The good news. There are many other stats and studies cited in the article. We learn melanoma is on the rise in women under 40. While indoor tanning use is declining, a third of white female teens report they have at some point slinked into a tanning bed. About half of elite colleges and universities have tanning beds on campus or campus housing. Absurd.

The most worrisome news in the whole piece? Even a few tanning sessions in youth and young adulthood might cause skin cancer:
Many factors, including genetics, are at play with skin cancer. But exposure to ultraviolet light causes a majority of cases, and scientists have been trying to gauge how big a role indoor tanning plays. A panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization found in 2009 that the use of sun beds before age 30 was associated with a 75 percent increase in the risk of melanoma. A 2012 study found a 15 percent increase in the risk of certain skin cancers with every four sessions in a tanning bed before age 35.
Not good news. Not at all. It would have been better, again, to have these risks put into the context. I'd like to know the overall cancer rates (or incidence) for these age groups. Also, the links between skin cancer at these ages and UV exposure (the old fashioned way, the sun!) plus sunburns.

It's a start.

Next time maybe the vaunted news organization will feature photos that don't involve attractive young women and a lot of skin. Yes, I realize it is a skin cancer piece but still. The first large photo shows a skin cancer survivor who could be a model, good hair and make-up. In two smaller shots we see her sunbathing in a bikini in her youth in the first and the second, pulling up her shorts or bathing suit to reveal a nasty scar on the top of her thigh. Now I can't stop wondering how that photo shoot went down. Do you mind slipping into something you can pull up above your thigh and we can splash across the New York Times? If you're comfortable, no pressure. All for public health awareness. Getting the word out. Preventing cancer. Hey, do you have old bikini shots? Spring break photos? 

The other large photo, if I may belabor the point here, shows a mother holding up a poster or large photo of the daughter she lost to skin cancer, both attractive women.

Skin cancer doesn't happen only in good-looking women but you wouldn't know it from this story. The editors could have replaced the photogenic females with graphs, pie charts or other relevant information that would have put the above statistics into more perspective. Gosh, I wonder why they didn't? What if the story had featured testicular cancer? Just curious, I wonder what Margaret Sullivan, the paper's Public Editor thinks. Wait, tomorrow the paper will do an investigation into the objectification of women. How does it happen? Why do girls still wanna be pretty? The insidious, pervasive nature of gender discrimination.

Next time, dear New York Times, bump the bikini and the babes with some more data please!

If anyone else is slightly bothered by the selected images, or would like to present a good argument for their inclusion, here's your chance.

No comments: